Monday, February 28, 2011
Black History Month is Everyday White Folks Like Charles Moore Doing the Right Thing
Today is the last day of Black History Month. While of course every day should be one where we reflect on the contributions of all peoples to improve American democracy, this month has always held a special place given the unique experience of black people in the United States. From property, a people who were quintessentially American yet judged less than human fought to perfect American Democracy in the face of unimaginable bigotry, violence, and evil. For me, that is worth (at least) one month out of the year.
This year, I have chosen to reflect on the complexities of the Black experience by offering a series entitled, "Black History Month is..." Sure, black history month is an obligatory reciting of great deeds, firsts, and inventors. But as I have gotten older, I have come to see that history is much more complex. I still cling to The Black Book (my favorite tome of coming of age negro awareness). Slowly, I have to accept that black folks are like all people. Despite the inherently politicized nature of our experience in the West and our special "Blue's Sensibility," some black folks choose to fight against white supremacy and State power, while others choose to be bystanders (or even literally and metaphorically get in bed with it). The collective experience of Black America is not just one of resistance where 24/7, of everyday, and of every hour, we are engaged in some great freedom struggle against the Racial State and white hegemonic power. No, sometimes the true fruits of liberty are the freedom to simply "be."
In total, while there are everyday Black heroes whose success in a society--where upon birth they were immediately deemed less than, separate and unequal, or doomed to second class citizenship by virtue of their blood quantum--was measured by living a good life, there are others less heroic, less brave, and perhaps not even commendable who are also part of Black history. I tried to capture just a little of that complexity with my "Black History Month is..." series.
As the month ends, I would like to add one more wrinkle to how we conceptualize what does (or does not) count as the experience and history of Black Americans--an intervention that may be provocative (or even offensive) to some. I would suggest that Black History Month is also everyday white people doing the right thing. This is no pat on the back, false praise, and get out jail card for those white Americans who want to imagine that in mass their people were on the right side of history in this country--any fair minded appraisal of the Black Freedom Struggle and how White America was complicit with and benefited from racism would immediately throw that assertion into the dustbin of history.
When I speak of everyday white folks doing the right thing, I mean those quiet white people who nudged history forward by selling homes to black folks in "restricted communities" when such a choice could have meant professional suicide. I mean those quiet white folks who were in charge of integrating their offices and places of employment...and did so fairly and professionally. I mean those quiet white folks who reached out to the first wave of black students who crossed the colorline and bravely entered what were formerly all-White, Jim and Jane Crow spaces. I mean those quiet white folks who served honorably and side by side with their black brothers and sisters in the aftermath of President Truman's groundbreaking military desegregation order. I mean those white bank officers who approved loans for blacks when the convention was that we should be denied. And of course I mean the Freedom Riders, Abolitionists, and those who were down like John Brown despite the risk to their own lives.
In total, I mean those quiet white folks who did the right thing not because they were especially righteous, moral, or noble. Some acted on principle. Others acted on self-interest. And a few were simply being themselves and knew of no other way to behave.
The choice to stand with or against power is simply that--a choice. When some white folks, especially of the post-Civil Rights, post-racial, Benetton Obama generation say, "I don't know what to do about racism! I am just one person" Or "that was so long ago, I shouldn't feel guilty about the past, most white people would have done the same things if they lived then and we should judge history in its context!"
In response, I simply say that "people make choices." You can choose to act. You can choose to stand pat. White people, as human beings, with full agency, make that choice everyday. For example, white people like Charles Moore, legendary photographer of the Civil Rights Movement, chose to do the right thing. Here, and in that way, I hold white folks to the same level of accountability and justice as I do my black and brown kin.
I don't know if that bar is set to high or too low. But the standard exists. And this generation of white Americans is part of a continuum of history to which they are responsible. Ultimately, Black History Month is everyday white people doing the right thing. In this month, as well as year round, white folks should be at least as reflective regarding this fact as their fellow black Americans.